Over at Read the Fathers, we just finished Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 133 – c. 190; I do wonder about that name…), On the Resurrection of the Dead. Twice, at the outset of the work and at the ‘recapitulation’ in chapter 11, Athenagoras makes the point that defending the truth — in this case, that the dead shall rise — is less important than explaining it, that apologetics is of less value than doctrine. However, he notes that there is a place for defending the truth, since otherwise how can people come to grasp the doctrines?
This is an important thought, and one sometimes missed in certain circles. I am not making apologists themselves my targets here. From what I can tell, people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig do actually believe Christian doctrines, even if I take issue with Craig’s neo-apollinarianism. Nonetheless, based upon recollections from life as a teenager and undergraduate, many young people in the church never get beyond apologetics — proving that there is a God; arguing against evolution; arguing for the reliability of the Bible; etc., etc.
This is good as far as it goes — I agree with Little, you should Know Why You Believe. I also agree with, however, that you should Know What You Believe.
If apologetics passed for doctrine for some young people of my generation, perhaps it is no surprise that by the time we were thirty or thirty-five, many of my peers were no longer churchgoers or professing Christians or even basic theists. If your vision of who God is is supplied only by the cosmologial argument and not “fleshed out” (if you will) by the doctrines of the Incarnation and Most Holy Trinity, then how will mere apologetics stand up to the fierce polemic of some in this world, let alone the soft war waged upon us by comfort?
Athenagoras, for example, goes from arguing that there will be a general resurrection to why there will be, looking at the nature of humans, of God, and of justice. I have to admit that it is not the best treatment of the resurrection of the dead out there — so far, my favourite is Bishop Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ. Be that as it may, whether one prefers Michael Ramsey or Athenagoras, appreciating the resurrection of the dead and truly affirming it as a Christian doctrine (something we do in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds) requires more than just a defense that such a resurrection will take place.
To my mind, there are two main reasons for thinking about doctrine and theology. First, because it informs how we worship God. The second is like unto it, because it can inform how we live. Essentially, as Athenagoras says towards the end of On the Resurrection of the Dead (note that ‘Him who is’ is the Greek translation from Exodus of that I AM’, the second part of ‘I AM that I AM.’)
‘And we shall make no mistake in saying, that the final cause of an intelligent life and rational judgment, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees. -Translated by B.P. Pratten. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.